N.Va. loses its clout in state Senate

January 14, 2012

Northern Virginia has held considerable sway in the state Capitol for the past four years as Democrats from the region dominated the Senate.

Six of the Senate’s 11 committees, where chairmen decide the fate of legislation, were led by Northern Virginians. The majority leader, decider of which measures are actually voted on, was from Fairfax.

All that has changed.

Republicans last week seized control of the evenly divided chamber and immediately stripped the heavily Democratic region of its sizeable clout. Now there’s not a single Northern Virginian at the helm of a committee. The majority leader hails from Hampton Roads. And on top of that, two powerful, longtime senators from Northern Virginia retired.

Many in Northern Virginia’s delegation fear they’ve lost the power to push through legislation to benefit the region and stop bills that hurt it.


Quite a comeuppance for a place that’s home to nearly one-third of the commonwealth’s 8 million residents, one known to refer dismissively to everything south of the Rappahannock River as RoVa, as in “rest of Virginia.”

Northern Virginia has long complained that, with its fast-growing, affluent suburbs and vast business base, it foots the bill for more than its fair share of state services. Some of the region’s leaders have for decades proposed — sometimes with tongue in cheek, sometimes not — seceding from the state.

But now Northern Virginians feel like they’ve been shown the door.

“Northern Virginians have definitely lost influence,” said Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax), who lost her chairmanship of the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee and is waiting to hear whether she and two Northern Virginia colleagues will be reappointed as budget conferees. “We’re the economic engine of the state, and our needs need to be addressed. And the danger is that they won’t be.”

Even some Republicans believe the region will be hurt.

“I’d like to say it doesn’t matter, but it does,” said Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), chairman of the House Courts of Justice Committee. “To the extent that Chuck Colgan” — the Democratic senator from Prince William who chaired the powerful Senate Finance Committee — “will not be there to kill things, it will be a loss.’’

In a state as large and diverse as Virginia, Northern Virginians are a troubled that senators from outside the region won’t fully appreciate their epic traffic woes and other pressing problems. This year, the region’s legislators hope to fight Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s $65 million cut to “cost to compete” funds, extra money the region has been allotted in the past to woo school employees in that high-dollar jobs market.

“These are things worked out in conference committee,” said Del. Scott A. Surovell (D-Mount Vernon). “The cost to compete is something that only benefits Northern Virginia. It’s something we need. Our teachers just cost a lot more.”

Northern Virginia senators also worry about their ability to block legislation on social issues that play very differently in the more racially diverse, better-educated and liberal Washington suburbs than in more rural parts of the state.

“Last year, we had 24 bills coming over from the House of Delegates that were anti-immigrant, and we have no idea at this point if we can defeat them [this year],” Howell said.

As a committee chairwoman, Howell said, she did her greatest service to Northern Virginians by stopping what her constituents considered “bad legislation,” such as proposals to expand gun rights or nullify federal legislation.

“When I’m in Northern Virginia, the issues I ran are very clear. And then I get on 95, and about the time I get to Kings Dominion, I go off into the twilight zone,” Howell said. “Attitudes are different, issues are different, approach is different.”

‘Elect more Republicans’

Northern Virginia finds itself in this position for two reasons: The GOP is in charge and most of the region’s senators — 10 of 13 — are Democrats. (Northern Virginia’s three Republican senators are all too junior for chairmanships.)

Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R) , whose tie-breaking votes allow his party to take control of a chamber that split 20-20 in November’s elections, offered a solution to Northern Virginians fretting about their diminished influence: “Elect more Republicans.”

But Bolling, the state’s jobs creation officer, also said the region has nothing to worry about. Senators from around the state will be attentive to the region’s needs, he said, because the area is so vital to Virginia as a whole.

“Everybody here understands the importance of Northern Virginia,” said Bolling, noting that 45 percent of the economic development deals hatched in the past two years have been in that part of the state. “Everybody jokes about the NoVa/RoVa thing, but I try to tell everybody around the state, ‘If you live in RoVa, you’d better be glad there’s a NoVa.’”

Sen. Ryan T. McDougle (R-Hanover), chairman of his caucus, said the GOP takeover is “absolutely not” dire news for Northern Virginia, in part because the region’s business interests are in step with traditional GOP interests.

“It’s one of the most innovative technological areas of the commonwealth, and the country for that matter,” he said. “We’re going to put it in the best [business] climate to expand.”

Democrats: We’re united

Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), who was the Senate majority leader and is now minority leader, shares the view that the region will not suffer — but for very different reasons.

Northern Virginia will be able to flex some muscle during the budget process, Saslaw said, since Bolling has acknowledged that he is not authorized to break tie votes on the budget; Republicans will need at least one Democratic vote for it to pass. And no Democrat will vote for the budget, Saslaw said, unless the region’s interests are protected — if only because Democrats statewide are upset about the takeover.

“Trust me, we’re unified,” he said. “There’s some pretty hard feelings there.”

Those assurances fall flat for some Northern Virginians, who are also concerned that their influence will be further diminished by the retirements this year of two experienced Democratic senators: Mary Margaret Whipple of Arlington, who chaired the Rules Committee and her party’s caucus; and Patricia S. Ticer of Alexandria, who led the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee.

“It’s critical that our interests be represented,” said Sharon ­Bulova (D), chairwoman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

Northern Virginian senators, who at least have seats on committees, aren’t the only ones feeling left out. Senator Phillip P. Puckett (D-Russell) complained on the Senate floor that Southwest Virginia did not have a single spot on the Senate Finance Committee.

“Even though you don’t have representation [on the committee], that does not preclude you in any way from introducing appropriate budget amendments,” Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment (R-James City) replied. “And those budget amendments will be fairly and reasonably considered.”

That response irked some in the Northern Virginia delegation, both on behalf of Southwest and because of their own diminished power.

Sen. George L. Barker (D-Fairfax) said Norment’s comment boiled down to this: “ ‘We don’t need to have you be involved in decision-making. You submit what you want, and we’ll make the decision.’ . . . People need to be at the table and involved in the process rather than a supplicant going to the king.”

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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